On Power & Prosperity: Thoughts from Ecological Economics & Poverty Inc.

Updated: Apr 13, 2019

Machiavelli said:

"The reason there will be no change is because those who stand to lose from change have all of the power; and those who stand to gain from change have none of the power".

This was used to describe the global aid system in the documentary Poverty Inc., and it was the recollection of this line after my Ecological Economics class with Tim Jackson that spurred me to host a screening of the film for the CES department and other guests last February 27.

What happened in my Ecological Economics class?

Allow me to take you through a bit of a journey through an existential crisis.

First of all, a single week, although packed to the brim, is not enough to cover the pertinent discussion points around ecological economics and sustainable development. Nonetheless, the topic of power imbalances was brought up in class, and how this inequality has created hurdles in overcoming climate change and addressing endless, unsustainable consumption.

One example might be how the big fossil fuel companies still pursue "business as usual" at the expense of local communities and the natural environment because of their deep pockets and influence on the state. Another example might be how the transnational FMCG companies are able to create at such a scale, making their means of production "efficient"; this then brings their prices down so low that they effectively monopolize certain industries, and drive local, smaller-scale entrepreneurs out of business due to their inability to sell to consumers at similar price points.

Meanwhile, the increasing wealth acquired by the 1% allows for the ultra-rich to live lavish, superfluously wasteful lifestyles while the rest of society struggles to catch up with this ever-rising bar of what it means to live "a life without shame". This makes it all the more relevant to redefine what we mean when we say "prosperity", especially within the limits of a finite planet.

Envisioning an economy that works

As part of the week's group work, we were tasked to imagine the Future of Work, Responsible Business, Sustainable Investment and Consumption in "an economy that works". Our group decided to focus on the Future of Work. As you would predict what others from a privileged class might imagine, we tended towards this Utopian idea of somewhat self-sufficient societies where there was a local butcher, baker, brewer, farmer, and maker of soap, shampoo bars and other lifestyle essentials. We also imagined more jobs being generated in the crafts, care and education sector, as well as in green energy generation. Not wanting to create silos between communities, we imagined there would be cross-community collaboration through some level of community specialization, and shared resources when it came to capital-intensive systems or infrastructures like energy distribution, irrigation, production/repair/recycling.

One of the other groups had focus on the topic of Responsible Business; they envisioned an increase in local, social enterprises, as well as an increase in the robustness of corporate sustainability programs and practices. This all sounded well and good, as I had been of the thinking that while it is good to increase the creation and capacity of social enterprises, they are no match for the scale and impact of large transnational corporations (TNCs); and we must therefore address the pursuit of responsible business on all fronts - in companies big and small.

However, it made me wonder:

  • Should we indeed work to improve programs and practices of TNCs by helping them come up with more circular business models and better sustainability strategies (which is what I had come to the UK hoping to learn more about/for)? If we help big corp come up with circular / sustainable systems, where would production be? Might their technology be open-sourced for communities to recreate their products locally + their shares also shared with their employees / partners?

  • If not, is helping big corp counter-productive because it simply continues to perpetuate the centralization of power on TNCs, while rendering smaller players in developing countries more incapable of competing (unless they ship their products to the affluent west)? Does this then make evil corporations more like the kind, altruistic people that Slavoj Zizek considers the worst slave owners? Would more militancy towards corporations be good for me to practice?

  • And even then, when we talk about supporting social enterprises, something I have frequently struggled with is: 1) the high cost of certain craft-based social enterprise products, and 2) its reliance on continuous consumption of new goods. So, when we (the more ecologically-minded) talk about minimalism and reducing our consumption, what happens then to the market (the "conscious consumer") for these social enterprise products?

  • If not through social enterprise, how do we redistribute the wealth to poorer populations? Through the forceful seizing of the assets of the 1%? Taxation? The Green New Deal being pushed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sounds like the closest to that. I have a challenging time imagining how this will be implemented, and as optimistic as I want / try to be, I also wonder if there's enough good in enough people to properly implement and monitor an endeavor like this; but also, it's high time that we tried more radical approaches.

  • In the meantime, redistributing foreign aid from wealthy countries to poor countries seems like a good idea. But how do we ensure that these resources are allocated in the most / more effective ways? And do we have good enough sight of the big picture to understand the possible negative repercussions of some of these interventions?

Down that rabbit hole I went. (I didn't wind up a nihilist after that crisis yet, thank goodness.)

After the Eco Econ module, there was still much lacking in the conversation. Obviously, after just a week, there was still a lot more ground to cover. In our discussions, I also missed more of a "developing country" or "global south" perspective. And while it's simple enough to understand that we cannot continue to pursue economic growth within the limits of a finite planet, I was hard-pressed to understand how equity would be given by developed countries to developing countries (or by the top 1-10% of developing countries to their less privileged countrymen) without continuing trade or commerce, and therefore, consumption.

I was entrepreneurial in my youth. In elementary and high school, I sold things from cookies to jewelry. I set up my first legit business in 2009 selling laptop sleeves and other products you could slap graphic designs on (that wasn't a t-shirt). And while I resigned from it in 2012, deciding that I no longer wanted to create products myself and unnecessarily contribute to this cycle of consumption, I was still very much immersed in entrepreneurial circles that relied heavily on growth through increased consumption.

I believed that charity and dole outs wouldn't help provide sustainable livelihood for grassroots communities the same way social enterprises could. It's always been an ongoing moral dilemma for me to be "minimalist" and choose to preserve the environment, or save up for purposeful consumption that empowers people. Some people will say that we don't have to choose; we can choose products that support people and the planet. However, I'm not so sure we do the planet much better if we simply replace our regular consumption with "green" consumption if we continue to consume at a rate that's unsustainable for the planet.

So anyway, why did I screen Poverty Inc.?

I really just wanted to share a more nuanced view on "changing the world" that I hadn't yet seen in our modules so far. And given that I'm here in the UK, I also wanted to share a bit of perspective with the "privileged white folks" - not that they had said anything offensive or patronizing, but it was simply a film that highlighted some things people here may overlook when they eagerly pursue their respective change-making careers, whether in the non-profit, for-profit or hybrid sectors.

I had organized a SIMA screening Poverty Inc. when I was in Berlin in 2016, and it was such a powerful film to me back then, and I felt like it was necessary viewing for people in my course / department, especially when we talk about complex systems and system change.

The film tackled the negative impacts of things like agricultural subsidies, disaster relief as a permanent model, the impact of foreign donations on local entrepreneurs and economies, while also emphasizing the need to look for solutions that try to tackle the root of some of these systemic problems, rather than band-aid interventions by international NGOs.

[You can find more resources on the film or watch it via www.povertyinc.org]

While some people may get the impression that the film attacks NGOs, it doesn't do so in a sweeping way, and in fact acknowledges that through a more well-thought out, participatory process that takes into consideration the local context and involves local partners, interventions by non-profits can stand to do a lot of good.

If you've seen the film, I highly recommend the Filmmaker Q&A with the director Michael Mattheson Miller. As they say on the page:

There is no “donate here” button at the end of Poverty, Inc., nor is the whole story of poverty and development covered in 91 minutes. Rather than latching on to new silver bullets, we invite you to join us in embracing the complexity and engaging in a more nuanced dialogue.

Though I myself am critical of aid too, I wouldn't cast out all aid per se. Perhaps what we need with non-profits as with for-profits is a sort of "creative disruption". I think I see a bit of that with UNDP's pilot Accelerator Labs, which seems like it aims to really harness the potential of existing local solutions, develop more interventions and collaborative networks, led by a team of locals as well. RARE is also an NGO that works primarily through the engagement with a local stakeholder / champion. In those cases, I do think that the NGOs are learning and adapting. I also believe that as with many other things in this world that were created with good intentions, they tend to become negatively impactful when they are abused, or when they improperly applied in another context, or treated as a "silver bullet".

We also have to be wary about thinking about social enterprises as the silver bullet / golden ticket / platinum paragon for sustainable development. As some attendees during the screening raised, a lot of African countries, community is very important. One African attendee shared that they value a communal sense of living, which is very different from the capitalist model or individualistic, self-interested thinking. How would it then evolve when we introduce capitalist mechanisms in collectivist cultures like Africa? Can we also ensure that we don't resort to the creation of frivolous products just to redirect wealth in a more dignified manner?

Also, during the post-screening discussion, I may have come across as "the angry brown girl" when I made a comment about "the privileged white man" who come with their messianic / superhero complexes to save the poor, hungry, uneducated people in the global south. I regret that now a little, but primarily because I didn't get to say that even people of the same race may be guilty of this. One doesn't have to be of another "superior" race to fall prey to this mindset or behavior; whenever people of privilege or greater relative power impose solutions onto other without a more participative / inclusive approach, there is a danger of creating inappropriate interventions, and that could very well happen between people of the same country.

All this to say, it's just important that we take a step back and try, to the best of our capacity, to understand the long term impacts of our actions and suggested interventions, and explore more deeply the root causes of social problems, and what the filmmakers refer to as the "institutions of justice" necessary for human flourishing.

Instead of just thinking about how to solve poverty, perhaps we should focus on creating prosperity. And in this shift of thinking, we should also have a better understanding of what prosperity truly means apart from wealth generation. Perhaps pursuing a good life for one's self and for others can then involve an acceptance of Emile Durkheim's "social fact", while simultaneously rebelling against it and creatively disrupting the flawed box we find ourselves in. The conversation continues!

Suffice it to say that for now, it's important that we create conversations around these issues to create greater awareness and understanding, and more informed, contextualized interventions. Lastly, we need to involve the youth in this discussion, and the age at which they begin to appreciate and understand these issues is younger than we might think. I'll leave you with this video of 14-year-old Hannah who spoke up during the discussion at the Poverty Inc. screening I hosted in Berlin in 2016, imploring us older folks to spark more conversations and make these issues more widely known. I hope she inspires you too.


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